“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
John 3:14-21 (NRSV)
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Friends, these are words that we all know. These are words that are the root of our Christian faith. And yet these are words that bring anxiety to many. And, unfortunately, these are words that tend to give a false sense of entitlement and authority to some.
My friends, as well-known as it is, this is one of those passages that is many times used unjustly to judge and condemn others. To say who is “in” and who is “out.” Who belongs and who does not. Who is good and who is bad. Who finds favor with God and who doesn’t. Who is worthy and who is unworthy. Who receives eternal life and who is damned for all eternity. Really? All that from a few simple words of Scripture?
Well, speaking of words, as most of you know, throughout the season of Lent here in Oldtown, we are taking time to “dig through the mess” and to reflect on the difficult words and understandings of our faith, and how even in the midst of them, if we allow the light of Jesus to shine through, we can always find hope.
Our word for this week is “condemn,” and we already heard it several times in today’s Scripture reading. I remember as I was going through the ordination process, it was Scripture like this that scared me to death. During my ecclesiastical council, when I was called to share my faith story and explain my theological understanding, I was so nervous that I would be asked a question about who is in and who is out? Who receives eternal life and who is damned for all eternity? Who finds favor with God and who does not? Because I truly believe from the bottom of my heart that we are all children of God – not only those of us who are sitting here this morning or those of us who are nice to others or those of us who identify as Christians but every single person who is born on this earth. And God loves each one of us equally. God may not like our actions or our choices at times, but that does not stop God from loving us unconditionally.
The first piece of evidence that we find to support this comes from the ever-famous John 3:16. You know, the passage that you used to see that guy with a rainbow wig holding up on a sign in the stands at sporting events? John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” Did you hear that? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” Did you notice that it didn’t say, “For God so loved the church, that he gave his only son?” It didn’t say, “For God so loved the people who help their neighbors, that he gave his only son.” Or, “For God so loved good Christians, that he gave his only son.” No, it said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son.” And my friends, when we remember that we get a much bigger picture of the kingdom of God.
Another important statement for us to understand in today’s scripture is, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
I wonder, if Jesus was not sent to this world to condemn, then why to do we so often think it is our job to judge and point fingers? Many times, as human beings, our self-centered thinking says, “I know that I am right, and if I am right, that means you must be wrong.” Over the years, this passage from the Book of John has been used to say that if you are not a good Christian, you are condemned. But how can that be, when God loves the whole world? And what exactly is a “good Christian?” Well, I guess it depends on what denomination you identify with because each denomination has a different set of rules and a different understanding of what is acceptable and what is not. In some churches, you must be saved, or born again, or a dedicated disciple of Jesus. Some believe in infant baptism or believers baptism, some have rules as far as who is welcome at the communion table, and others say all are welcome. But, who made these rules? Who sets these boundaries? My friends, this might sound surprising to many of you, but in this postmodern era, we are learning that religion is a part of the faith problem of today. There is a big movement going on right now, especially with younger generations, that says “We love Jesus, but not the church.” Because religion – the church or the temple or the mosque – teaches us that there is one right answer, one right faith, and we know that the right answer is our faith, our church. Religion teaches us that there is one right path, and it is the path that we are on. Because we all know that we are right in our beliefs, and whether we mean to or not, we judge those who are not like us. After all, scripture tells us that “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already,”
I know that line opens a whole can of worms, but what if we take a step back? Okay, what if we take a giant step back, to more than two thousand years ago, and simply learn from Jesus? Because Jesus reached out to the least and the lost, didn’t he? He dined with sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes! Jesus didn’t point fingers. He didn’t judge. He didn’t condemn. The interesting part, however, is that the religious leaders always tried to get him to.
I don’t know if you remember the story, but there is a story in many of the gospels about a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. Well, the law of Moses is very clear that someone who commits adultery should be stoned to death. The Pharisees – or religious leaders – asked Jesus what he thought they should do. After all, the religious leaders were more interested in this woman as an illustration of a moral principle than who she was as a person. They were more interested in their religious values, their religious philosophies, their religious ideas, and their knowledge of the Old Testament laws. And, unfortunately, the
Pharisees are a good example of what happens to all of us sometimes. Because many times we slowly become twisted in our thinking that our moral principles become more valued than individual lives. Our ethics become more cherished than people themselves. Spiritual laws become more important than a person’s life. The religious leaders knew their Old Testament better than anyone, and it was very clear what the law stated should happen to this woman. They wanted Jesus to prove his knowledge and agree with them, but he didn’t. And he couldn’t! Because Jesus knew that he was not put on this earth to judge and condemn. On the contrary, he was called to bring light to the darkness – to fill what was empty and to build up what was broken. So, rather than agreeing with the religious leaders, Jesus simply said, “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” One by one, they all dropped their stones and walked away.
Friends, today we heard from Jenn Lumi about a few changes that are coming here in Oldtown, changes that will bring a sense of safety to our community. Now granted, these changes are coming about because of requirements that our insurance company has placed on us. But the truth is, if we strive to be a place where all are welcome and where people of all ages and races and genders and classes and backgrounds can come and be assured of God’s love for them, then isn’t it our responsibility to make sure that this is a safe place, and that we have done everything in our power to make sure that it is?
Now, some of you may be thinking, I know that I have done things in the past that were not always the best. And if I have one of those background checks it might uncover something that I have done. Friends, maybe you have marks on your record that you are not proud of, and you are afraid that once those are known, you may be condemned and judged by this community. But let me assure you, my friends, that is ABSOLUTELY not true!
We are all human beings, and we all make mistakes. If you have something on your record, it will never be announced to the congregation. You won’t have to relive the hurt and or embarrassment that it has already caused in your life. Only one person will see the results of the background checks, and that is me. All information will be kept extremely confidential, and the fact that you may have a mark on your record does not mean that you will be ostracized or uninvited from being a part of all aspects of our congregation. As the insurance company explained it to us, if you know that someone has some drunk driving offenses, then maybe it’s not the best choice to have them to drive the youth group to an event. Or if someone has a history of misappropriation of funds, then you probably don’t want them to serve as a treasurer. But there are lots of other places where they can help and be involved.
I want to be very clear that this process is not being put in place to condemn or judge anyone. On the contrary, it is being put in place so that we can make Oldtown a safer place for God’s children of all ages! If you have any questions or concerns about our new safe church policy or our safety ministry, please feel free to talk with me or with Jenn after worship today. As Jenn spoke of earlier, the safe church training includes a series of videos that you can watch online and then take a quiz to get a certificate saying that you have been trained. I have to say, I watched the videos yesterday and took the test, and I got two answers wrong out of twenty. That only proves how much we have to learn, my friends! Because sometimes we think we understand. We think we know it all. We think we have everything under control and we have all the answers, but unfortunately, that is not always true.
So, it’s time to stop simply saying that we are a church that welcomes all and for us to start to take action to not only welcome but to provide a safe place for all people – to bring light to the darkness and knowledge to situations of doubt and fear. Because, as I said in the introduction before the scripture, it’s easy for us to skip over or make light of the things that we don’t understand. But in order to truly understand, sometimes we need to dig a little deeper. Because what can look one way on the surface can look very different when we understand what is happening underneath.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your busy week ahead, remember that Jesus was not put on this earth to judge, and neither are we. So, like Jesus, let us work diligently to bring light to the dark places, not dividing, separating and condemning individuals, but welcoming, supporting and loving the world, remembering the words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.”
My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God! Amen!!